Kansas assistance dogs change lives of both those who train them and those who get them

Washington, Kan.,-based KSDS Assistance Dogs Inc. graduates its 522nd, 523rd and 524th human-canine teams

By Bill Blankenship, October 22, 2016

Pictured are Judy Beck and her service dog, Strong.

KSDS Assistance Dogs Inc.-trained guide dog Strong leads visually
impaired Judy Beck, of Kearney, Neb., around a pickup truck parked
across the sidewalk during two weeks of training in Washington, Kan.,
where KSDS has operated for more than 26 years.
(Photo by Annette Metz/KSDS Assistance Dogs Inc.)

Washington, Kan. — Coleena Post had reason to be emotional as she participated in the fall graduation program of KSDS Assistance Dogs Inc.

Post was there to watch Strong, a black Labrador retriever, she and her late husband, Roger, raised at their rural Udall home, set off for his new home in Kearney, Neb., as a guide dog for Judy Beck, who has only limited peripheral vision.

“I cannot see my fingers in front of my face,” said Beck, who with Strong, during ceremonies Oct. 15, became the 524th team KSDS has trained since its inception in 1990.

“Strong is my personal memorial to Roger,” Post said of her husband, who at the time of his death Sept. 11, 2014, was president of the KSDS board of directors.

Strong was one of a litter of black labs donated to KSDS by Beth and Eric Sakumura. The Lawrence couple named the donated pups after University of Kansas-related people or things: Anschutz, Bailey, Danforth, Jayhawk, Phog, Strong and Watson.

“Strong was the alpha dog of the litter. He was the strongest,” said Post, who said Strong demonstrated, perhaps a little too much, the freethinking nature needed for a guide dog who must be able to steer visually impaired companions around obstacles to get them safely to their destination.

KSDS trainers thought the 6-foot-5 Roger Post, who had raised more than a dozen puppies for the agency, would be a good match for the sometimes-spirited Strong.

“Strong got 43 days of him,” Post said of her husband, “then he became my dog.”

Post said she continued to train and socialize Strong, who though “an ornery puppy who didn’t know the word ‘no’ ” at times, also proved comforting by putting his head on her lap when she was feeling sad.

About 18 months after taking Strong into her home, Post said she and other volunteer puppy raisers got the call to return their dogs to the KSDS facilities for evaluations before they began their final training before placement with clients.

Beyond the emotional ties she had developed with Strong — “it’s like I’m giving away my deceased husband for the last time” — Post said she was sure she hadn’t prepared Strong well enough to be advanced to final training.

“I was bringing back one wild child,” said Post, who was amazed as the staff put Strong through his test.

“That boy didn’t miss a lick. He did stuff that I hadn’t even taught him how to do,” Post said.

Post, who is now raising another puppy, this one named Bean, left Strong behind at KSDS, where Debbie Tegethoff completed Strong’s training as a guide dog. They then traveled to Nebraska for a week of training at the home of Beck, for whom Strong will be her first guide dog.

“I’ve just used my white cane before,” said Beck on the last day of a week’s worth of on-site training at the KSDS Training Center.

Asked why she wanted a guide dog, Beck offered, “To help me get around, for companionship, well just so many things I’ve found I can do with the dog that I wasn’t able to do with a cane.”

On one of their first walks together, Strong suddenly stopped Beck, leaving her to ask why. She was told Strong spotted a low-hanging branch of a tree into which she would have walked. It was an obstacle Beck probably wouldn’t have detected with her cane.

“They’re just so well trained,” Beck said. Later, during a nighttime walk (so she had no visual cues), Strong stopped suddenly before she stepped into the path of a passing vehicle.

Beck said she is looking forward to a greater degree of independence allowed by Strong, who already has met his house mate, a toy poodle named Captain Morgan, so named because he is “a licker.”

Strong and Beck were the only guide dog team in this year’s fall class. The other two human-canine teams were people with some physical disability other than those needing vision and service dogs.

Service dogs are specially trained to provide assistance to people who use wheelchairs for mobility or those requiring a steady, four-legged partner to balance them as they walk, according to the KSDS Assistance Dogs’ website at www.ksds.org.

Among the skills service dogs provide their owners are: retrieving dropped or selected items, pulling wheelchairs, bracing for balance or transfers, turning lights on and off, opening and closing a variety of different types of doors, and assisting in dressing and undressing.

Picutred are Jerome Hawco and his service dog, Arwen

KSDS Assistance Dogs Inc.-trained Arwen demonstrates one of her
skills as a service dog by punching the control to open a door for her
new owner, Jerome Hawco, of Granger, Iowa, as one of the agency's
trainers, Annette Metz, look on. (Bill Blankenship/Topeka Capital-Journal)

Jerome Hawco, of Granger, Iowa, a town northwest of Des Moines, said his service dog, Arwen, was eager to demonstrate her abilities.

“The very first day we met, she tried to take off my socks. She’s been really good, really gentle,” the 2-foot-11 Hawco said seated in his powered wheelchair.

Hawco said gentleness is needed as he was born with a genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta that results in brittle bones that break easily.

“Most of the bones in my body have been broken except for my neck, nose and back,” said Hawco, who added both his arms and legs were broken “even before I was born.”

Although his skeleton became stronger after puberty, Hawco said he knows he will get needed assistance from Arwen, who comes from a litter of puppies sponsored by the Always Have Hope Fund, which was established in 2013 after Hope, the service dog of a Topeka boy named Alex White, was struck and killed by a vehicle.

Alex, who was provided another service dog, Redondo, by KSDS Assistance Dogs, asked for the six yellow labs to be named for characters from “The Lord of the Rings.” Arwen’s litter mates are Eowyn, Galadriel, Legolas, Pippin and Strider.

Arwen was raised in Lawrence by Cindy Sears, a retired Southwest Junior High School art teacher, who took Arwen with her to Raintree Montessori School, where she teaches an after-school art program to first- through sixth-graders. Arwen got further training from female inmates at the Topeka Correctional Facility before completing her training at KSDS.

When Hawco gave Arwen permission, she greeted Sears with licks to her face.

“Dogs never forget,” Sears said.

Back home in Iowa, Arwen will become part of Hawco’s family, which includes his wife, three stepchildren, a foster child and two cats. Hawco’s eldest stepdaughter no longer lives at home, and his middle child is in college, so only comes home occasionally. This youngest stepson is 16 and “has always wanted a dog,” but Hawco said they will have to work out the necessary boundaries as Arwen is a working dog, not just a family pet. The foster daughter is 17.

Hawco said he expects Arwen to be his companion as he works an office job from home and will accompany his a couple of evenings a week at his part-time job at Walmart.

The new home of Pippen, one of Arwen’s siblings, is in Lee’s Summit, Mo., where he will be the second KSDS-trained service dog of Roby Little, a retired teacher and community activist who has rheumatoid arthritis.

As her disease progressed, Little’s desire to remain active prompted her to apply for and receive in 2006 her first service dog, B.C., short for Black Cat, part of a litter with Halloween names.

B.C., who just turned 13, “is too old to be a service dog, so I’m very fortunate to get a successor dog,” said Little, who added she has missed B.C.’s help.

“I have a fear of falling,” she said. “It’s hard for me to carry things, pick things up from the floor or even going up on a curb because I’ve had both ankles fused,” she said.

B.C. would help Little by getting clothes out of the dryer and carrying her purse or light packages. Just having B.C. by her side gave Little confidence, she said.

Little expects Pippen to do the same tasks, but said the new dog is a little more energetic than her old one. She anticipates she will bond with Pippen as she gets him settled at home with B.C. and her husband.

“You love these dogs, you know. They’re lovable,” Little said.

Because Little needed a replacement dog, she was moved to the top of waiting list that can be three or four years long, said Glenda Keller, who along with Sandy Bartkoski, are KSDS’s part-time CEOs.

Keller, a retired county extension agent, has been with KSDS since its inception, when 4-H’ers who were raising puppies for out-of-state assistance dog agencies realized there was a need for one in Kansas to serve it and other Midwest clients.

With a $500,000 startup grant from the state of Kansas “and a group of kids that knew how to train dogs,” KSDS got its start. It now has puppy raisers in 15 states and has matched dogs with clients in 25 states.

Through some more grants and private and corporate sponsorships, KSDS has developed its campus to include a canine housing unit, an administration building, a training building, another that also can be used for training and larger meetings and handicap-accessible apartments that clients can use during their training sessions.

Keller estimates the value of each dog they place is $25,000, nearly all of which is from donated money and time. Corporate sponsors include Topeka-based Hill’s Pet Nutrition, which not only donates the food for the dogs in training at the KSDS facility but also for the puppy raisers and the clients. Hill’s ships the dog food so the clients don’t have to go out and purchase it. Merial does the same thing with its heartworm protection Heartgard.

Kansas State University donates or offers reduced-cost veterinary services and testing. Kansas Lions Clubs and the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation also are regular donors.

KSDS also is remembered in people’s wills, and the agency also receives generous support from individuals. On graduation day, KSDS was only a few hundred dollars away from matching a $10,000 gift from an anonymous donor. Someone gave KSDS a check for $5,000, which meant the drive produced nearly $25,000.

However, KSDS’s current monthly fundraising goal is $62,000, said Keller, who said the agency would like to be able to reduce its waiting list and train more dogs because the need for them will grow as the population ages.

Bill Blankenship can be reached at (785) 295-1284 or bill.blankenship@cjonline.com.
Follow Bill on Twitter @@TCJ_AandE. Read Bill's blog.


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